The infighting within UK Labour over Israel took a surprising twist last week that could push the party into further disarray. Jewish Voice for Labour (JVL) – the main grouping of left-wing Jews in the Labour party known for their highly critical stance on Israel – have accused Labour under the leadership of Kier Starmer of “purging Jews from the Party.”
The damning allegation was made in a detailed 77-page report to the Equality and Human Rights Commission (EHRC) and to the Forde enquiry, which was set up by the Labour leader to address EHRC’s findings following its 17-month long investigation into alleged anti-Semitism within the party during the leadership of Jeremy Corbyn.
To the disappointment of many in the right of the Labour Party, who it’s claimed led a campaign of vilification against Corbyn, the EHRC found no evidence of anti-Semitism attributable to the former leader, or any evidence of institutional racism. However, the commission did find “specific examples of harassment, discrimination and political interference.”
EHRC’s findings were not only seen as a vindication for Corbyn, but his supporters also claimed that the report had confirmed their suspicion that Labour’s anti-Semitism “crisis” was fuelled by a right-wing faction to undermine the former leader. This was one of the conclusions reached from an internal 851-page report by the Labour Party’s Governance and Legal Unit.
Nevertheless, the backlash from the Corbyn led era has triggered an equally divisive row over the party’s stance on Israel, especially as the occupation state has been designated by several prominent human rights groups as being an apartheid state. What should be the appropriate position of Labour or any party that claims to prioritise equality, democracy and human rights, towards a state accused of practicing apartheid?
While this question has made institutional racism within Israel central to progressive parties in the same way that apartheid South African gained prominence across the world, Starmer, who is on record as saying that he “supports Zionism without qualification,” has been sharply criticised for trying to marginalise and even proscribe sections of the Labour party that are highly critical of the Zionist state.
Members of JVL have found themselves in the crossfire of Starmer’s campaign against left-wing factions and critics of Israel, which took an authoritarian turn more in tune with dictators in the Middle East than a progressive party in Britain last month as Labour’s National Executive Committee moved to proscribe Resist and Labour Against the Witchhunt (LAW) – which claims anti-Semitism allegations were politically motivated- and Labour in Exile Network, set up to welcome expelled or suspended members.
In their report to EHRC and the Forde Inquiry, JVL slammed Labour for “purging Jews from the Party.” The report calls on Labour to take seriously its responsibilities as an avowed anti-racist political party and to respect the full range of political views amongst its Jewish members.
JVL said that they had repeatedly warned both the EHRC and the Labour party about the “climate of hostility” being built up and directed against Jewish members. “This is experienced as discrimination, victimisation and harassment,” said the group pointing out that its “Jewish members do not feel safe in the Party” and that “this is experienced agonisingly like the persecution our families have experienced over centuries.”It seems that in all the cases where a Jewish member has been “purged” it is to do with their critical stance on Israel. Labour is one of several major parties to adopt the highly controversial International Holocaust Remembrance Alliance (IHRA) definition of anti-Semitism. Seven of the 11 examples cited in the working definition equate criticism of Israel with anti-Jewish racism.
IHRA has been severely criticised by a range of bodies, including the Institute of Race Relations; eminent lawyers; civil rights organisation Liberty; leading academic experts on anti-Semitism; 40 global Jewish social justice organisations; and more than 80 UK-based BAME groups.
Kenneth Stern, one of the drafters of the working definition, has also expressed deep concern over its misuse and warned of its “chilling effect” on free speech. According to Stern the code he drafted 15 years ago as the American Jewish Committee’s anti-Semitism expert, is being used for a completely different purpose than the one he intended.
The experience of JVL under Starmer’s leadership underscores the “chilling effects” which Stern warned against. In their report, JVL included excerpts from members to highlight examples of anti-Semitic misconduct which the group said was ignored by the Labour Party
“Everyone raised in a Jewish family setting – hugely diverse though these are — grows up knowing what antisemitism is in the depth of their being and we all carry the fear of it with us through our lives,” said one of the excerpts included in the report. “Knowing Jewishness from the inside as I do, I can honestly say that the idea of Jews being accused of antisemitism virtually en masse is something I cannot get my head around. But I don’t know of any precedent in which a group of Jews has been subjected to institutional accusations of antisemitism.”
JVL insists that it is part of a long Jewish tradition that opposes Zionism. “There is a more than a century-long difference of strongly held beliefs on Zionism, evolving more recently into many varied viewpoints,” said JVL pointing to the many diverse views within the Jewish community. Acknowledging that diverse views within the Jewish community were not unusual, Starmer’s insistence on presenting the two most vocal supporters of Israel, the Board of Deputies (BOD) and the Jewish Labour Movement (JLM), as the legitimate Jewish voice was sharply criticised. JVL says that the Board represents less than a third of Jews in the UK by most estimates and the criteria for joining the JLM include promoting the centrality of Israel in Jewish life.
The damning allegations include the claim that the Party has ignored complaints made by Jews who are members of JVL of anti-Semitism that was shown to executive members, including other forms of bullying. Jewish members have also been disproportionally targeted with investigations for anti-Semitism. “It appears that as a population share, almost five times more Jewish than non-Jewish Labour members have faced complaints of antisemitism which have been investigated,” the report said arguing that Jewish JVL members have been subject to “actioned antisemitism complaints at a rate 20 times greater than non-Jewish Labour members.”
The underlying assumption of the “purge” of Jewish members, said JVL, is that “all Jews are Zionists and/or that anti-Zionists are not proper Jews and indeed are antisemitic.” Such a view would not only constitute a form of racism according to the IHRA definition of anti-Semitism adopted by Labour, but it also delegitimises “an entire swathe of Jewish opinion and tradition.”
JVL’s report comes as local party branches are being lobbied to back a move during the party conference to reinstate the whip to Corbyn. The former leader is still denied the party whip in parliament over comments he had made last year following the publication of a report by the EHRC on anti-Semitism within Labour.
Supporters of Jeremy Corbyn are said to have drawn up an “urgent” plan that would hand party members the powers to reinstate the former leader as a Labour MP, in what is seen as further sign of the tensions within the party over his suspension. The change to Labour rules would give members the final say over disciplinary action taken against MPs and take power away from the National Executive Committee who are seen as being too right of party members.
Starmer’s office did not reply to MEMO’s request for comment.
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